Beatrice Webb (1858-1943)
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Last updated 2 Jun 2020
Beatrice Webb was a founding member of the Fabian Society and, with Sidney Webb, wrote the original Clause 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution.
For many years, this served as a reference point for the Labour Party both in opposition and in government. The original Clause Four pledged that Labour would “secure for the workers by hands or by brains the full fruits of their industry.” It also committed the party to gaining “the most equitable distribution therefore that may be possible upon the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” This was widely interpreted by supporters and political opponents alike as an endorsement of nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy – a stance that unquestionably matched the political outlook of the Webbs.
Clause Four was not however without controversy. The Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell sought to overturn Clause Four because he believed it had become an electoral liability, and shortly after gaining the leadership of the Party Tony Blair replaced Clause Four with a new formation that described Labour as a democratic socialist party committed to serving the interests of “the many, not the few.” As with Gaitskell, Blair believed that a commitment to common ownership was part of the ideological baggage preventing the party from broadening its electoral appeal. The amendment to Clause Four was a seminal moment in the emergence of New Labour.
Beatrice Webb was a founding member of the Fabian Society. Long the home of left-wing intellectuals and politicians, the Fabians have been a significant part of the Labour movement throughout its history. Fabians believe that an incremental approach to change on the basis of socialist principles is preferable to the bloodshed and chaos implied by revolutionary figures on the far-left. She firmly believed that the risk of blood and tears could be avoided when a technocratic elite was allowed to “impregnate all the existing forces of society.” Based on this argument, the Webbs established the London School of Economics to train those suited to the task of social engineering. The Fabian mindset also prescribes an expansion in the role of the state rather than its overthrow by the proletariat. Both figures (especially Beatrice) were concerned with the practicalities of creating a new Jerusalem and they certainly deserve a place in any compendium with regard to those on the centre-left of the political spectrum.